Graeme Innes AM
Disability Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
Melbourne 9 April 2012
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.
Whether you're recovering from the celebrations of your 19th birthday and experience a severe asthma attack; enjoying the highs and lows of a three-month-old baby and have a stroke; enjoying life when an assault causes a brain injury; or playing doubles with Sam Stosur when you have a skate-boarding accident; acquiring a disability can be a very tough experience.
I can't speak from personal knowledge, having had my disability all of my life. But I speak from long experience talking with, and sharing the stories of, people with disability around Australia and we are all enriched by the stories shared in this exhibition.
But added to that tough experience - because our disability service system in Australia is both broken and broke - many young people with disability, including those telling their stories today, are cared for in nursing homes surrounded by people in their eighties.
Consider the situation in Australia today for people with disability.
Currently almost one in two people with disability in Australia live in or near poverty - 45% were (more than double the OECD average of 22 %). Australia is ranked 27th out of 27 OECD countries when it comes to relative poverty risk for people with disability. Year 12 attainment is around 25% for people with disability, compared to just over 50% for the general population.
Overall employment rates for people with disability are been stagnant. Labour force participation remains low at around 54%, compared to 83% for people without disability. In 1986 6.6% of the Australian Public Service were employees with disability. This figure has steadily declined every year since then, and has now reached an all-time low of 3.0%.
60% of adults in the prison system experience an active mental illness. In NSW prisons people with intellectual disability — who make up between 1% and 3% of the general population — represent between 9% and 13% of the total NSW prison population.
Nursing homes have an important function in our society. But they are no place for young people with disability. Building Better Lives is a programme to change this situation.
I spoke to a young man with disability at a workshop run in Sydney just recently where such people can share their experiences. He told me of his joy at living in a shared house in Sydney's west. He had lived in a nursing home for some years, and told me of his repeated experience - "you just get to know a new friend and then they die." What sort of life is that for someone who has recently experienced the challenge of acquiring a disability, and thus landed in the further disadvantage I have described?
These stories tell us about what sort of life it is, and how those lives can change. They tell the stories first-hand and graphically illustrate the positive difference living in a more usual environment can make. I thank and congratulate all of you who have told these stories. They are stories which need to be shared.
And they are stories which will support the ongoing campaign for a national disability insurance scheme. Such a scheme would revolutionise Australia's approach to disability services.
- It would replace a rationed, demand driven service system with a system that empowers the individual, based on need, with ability to purchase and direct their own system of supports.
- It would enable greater choice and control.
- It would intervene early after acquisition or diagnosis of a disability, and aim to maximise the economic and social participation of the person concerned.
- It would aspire to the sort of economic equality that is required to address the inequality that people with disability experience.
An NDIS is an idea that should, and currently does, transcend partisan politics and if Australia is serious about achieving equality then it is the sort of idea that cannot be ignored.
I'm a proud Australian. We live in a great democracy, with one of the strongest economies in the world. I'm not proud, though, of how we treat Australians with disability, some of our most disadvantaged citizens. We should all be ashamed that, in such a strong nation, that treatment continues.
I am proud, though, of the Australians with disability, and their family members, who have shared their stories in this exhibition. Thank you for opening up your life experiences in this way. Because of your stories, this exhibition, and the campaign around Australia for a National Disability Insurance Scheme will contribute to the changing of many other people's lives. Thank you to all of you for that contribution, and I am pleased to open this exhibition.